Myths about atheism

5film3As an atheist and a follower of public discussions of religion one runs into strange misconceptions and myths about atheism and atheists. In my personal life I have only heard a couple of these but because I am interested in debates and that kind of stuff I’ve been exposed to a lot more prejudice indirectly. Also, as Scandinavian living in England following this discourse which is mostly happening across the pond in the States I will say that between Finland, UK and US there seems to be an increase in negativity towards atheism the further westwards you go.

1. Atheists hate God and worship Satan

The term ‘atheism’ is built up from three parts where theos is Greek for any god, -ism indicates a system of principles and practices, and a- expresses not or without. Atheism at its core, stripped out of all additional meanings simply stands for an unbelief in any god. It’s not defiance of a god, nor a pretence – it is simply a lack of belief. Satan is just as fictional to atheists as is God, and so it is safe to say that atheists don’t tend to practice devil worship either.
When it comes to feelings towards the concept of the Abrahamic god in particular there are undoubtedly many who would say that they despise him. Christopher Hitchens called himself an anti-theist to emphasise his disgust toward Yahweh and the kind of dictatorial theocracy that the Abrahamic religions promote. Richard Dawkins has endured his fair share of religious outrage for the following passage in The God Delusion:

“The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.”

At the most, some atheists hate the fictional character, God and his influence over non-fictional beings.

2. Atheists worship Richard Dawkins

At least Professor Dawkins is real, but no, he is definitely not the High Priest of Atheism. This myth encompasses a set of misjudgements about atheism. Being the opposite of theism – or religion, atheism is often seen as a unified movement comparable to any other political or religious ideology. Public advocates of atheism are easily taken as spokesmen and representatives for all atheists, and as a consequence an illusion of a likeminded group of people with common agenda, beliefs and values arises.
In reality the only thing that all atheists have in common is the unbelief in god or gods. Our morals and values do not come from a set ideology but are as varied as our favourite colours and foods. Atheists don’t have an agenda. Some of us might but again, simply not having a religious faith does not lead to any particular direction. In fact, another thing that atheists do share is perhaps a strong aversion to dogma and authoritarianism. The Atheist Agenda is kind of like The Gay Agenda – we just want to live our lives without being subject to organised religion and being attacked for our non-belief.
When it comes to Dawkins, there are many atheists who adore him and there are many who don’t. The only consensus is that atheists are not an organised movement with a single figurehead whose views we all subscribe to. There are numerous public atheist whom I look up to but I don’t need Richard Dawkins or anyone else to speak for me. That I can do for myself.

3. Hitler and Stalin were atheists therefore atheism is evil

First of all, we don’t actually know for sure about the religious convictions of either one.
Secondly, even if they were non-believers neither one proclaimed that it was their atheism that inspired them and justified what they were doing. A crime committed by a religious person is not always motivated by their religion, nor is a crime committed by an atheist necessarily motivated by their lack thereof.
Most importantly, there just is no way that this argument holds water even if we granted that both Hitler and Stalin were atheists, and that their evil came from atheism. In the grand scheme of things the centuries of religious wars, violence and persecution would still massively outweigh atheism in the overall amount of suffering inflicted upon humanity. From this line of thinking it would automatically follow that religion is even more evil than atheism.

4. You can’t disprove God therefore atheists are wrong

You can’t prove God therefore theists are wrong?
There is a sliver of truth in this claim and a more accurate denomination for most atheists is probably agnostic. However, agnosticism is such an elusive concept that it doesn’t really serve a purpose in describing one’s views. A theist is likely to interpret an agnostic’s stance on the existence of God as 50/50 – that there is an equal probability either way. Perhaps this seems trivial but there really is a huge difference in being 90% convinced of the non-existence of God compared to that halfway position that agnostics are easily prescribed.
It is important to remember that we are agnostic about many things. The most famous example of this is the cosmic teapot analogy coined by Bertrand Russell. It is simply to say that we cannot prove that there isn’t a teapot orbiting the Sun somewhere between Earth and Mars, which obviously doesn’t automatically mean that there has to be a one. This illustrates the logical fallacy inherent in the claim that because something is scientifically unfalsifiable it must be true.

5. Science is the religion of atheists

One sometimes encounters the claim that knowledge based on science requires faith in the methods of science and is therefore just as believable as religion. The distrust in science today probably stems from the tsunami of pseudo-science spawned by the shady corners of Internet. Not everything that claims to be science is in fact science, and this creates confusion. One study trying to prove anything is never enough to be a basis of reliable information.
Scientific truths are different from dogmatic truths in that they are fair game for review and critique. Scientific theories face rigorous scrutiny and multiple attempts to disprove them. This ensures that the knowledge that earns the gold star of being true has passed through such a volume of close examination and nit-picking that it’s nearly bulletproof. But only nearly, because even after being accepted it can still be tested and disproved.
Moreover, trust in the scientific method is founded on the fact that good theories make accurate predictions regardless of who is conducting the experiment. Science observes and seeks to explain how stuff works and when it succeeds things like eyeglasses, computers and skyscrapers get developed.
Science doesn’t require blind faith, it doesn’t have an inbuilt agenda and it doesn’t tell us what to do and how to live our lives.

6. “You just haven’t endured hardship. When you do, you will find God.”

Not only is this dismissive and presumptuous, but it also reveals how limited and childish religion can render its follower. I have nothing against those who feel better at the thought of an omnipotent, celestial being watching over them, but to insinuate that faith in supernatural is the only way to overcome obstacles and be fulfilled is stupidly unimaginative.
Personally I have found much more comfort in looking up to the early morning sky and spotting Jupiter; in learning that all elements that make up my body were forged within dying stars; and simply knowing that whatever happens there are real flesh-and-blood people in my life who will stand by me and physically hold my hand if I need it.
Surrendering to a metaphysical force is a gateway to ignoring responsibility and agency in one’s own life. That said, I’m not drawing a direct line from religious faith to infantilism. It’s a path that can be taken but certainly not by everyone.

7. Atheists are arrogant and look down on believers

This would be just as valid if it was reversed. Neither claim is based on evidence but on prejudice. Some people are arrogant, some people are funny, some people like cats. Atheism in an of itself doesn’t lead to arrogance – it is simply a way of abbreviating the statement: “I don’t believe in god”. Trying to force atheism to mean something other than it does will always reach a dead-end. I’m repeating myself but atheism is not a belief system like Christianity or Hinduism are. There are no atheistic traditions or core ideas because it is not a religion.
When you learn that someone is a Hindu you can immediately make some assumptions about them based on your general knowledge of Hinduism. These assumptions may or may not be accurate in the case of every single individual but they are reasonable because they originate from a set of known beliefs and values, which said individual has just identified with.
Learning that someone is an atheist merely informs you of something that this person does not believe in. The rest is up to you to find out.

Imagine being bald and never even growing any hair, and then a group of people insist on braiding and combing and curling your hair. You’re trying to draw their attention to the fact that you don’t actually have any hair nor are you going to. Your grandma is like “don’t be ridiculous, everyone has hair”. Someone gets offended and starts yelling at you “so you hate everyone who has hair!”. No guys, it’s fine, you have hair and I don’t. It’s not a big deal. Just don’t shove it down my throat. Literally. Pls.

Hail, Caesar! and shades of satire

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I wrote another longwinded commentary on the rampant online culture of self-victimisation and being offended, but instead of posting that today, I decided to talk about something possibly more fun. I’m certain that the other topic will still be relevant next week – sadly.

Disclaimer: I’m going to chat about a film that makes fun of religion (among other things). I you don’t like that kind of thing maybe go read something else. I’m an atheist, a critic of religion and a supporter of secularism. As a result I always find it marvellously entertaining when someone pokes fun at religion in any capacity – especially in the form of cinema. Life of Brian, anyone?

Hail, Caesar! is a film about films, about the enigma of the moviemaking business in the 1950’s where a Hollywood fixer Eddie Mannix has his hands full trying to keep his cavalcade of starlets in line and away from the scandal-hungry press. I love a good satire and even if your knowledge of show business myths and clichés is even less substantial than mine: mainly based on Audrey Hepburn films and Marc Maron’s podcast, you will get the the gist of this film. I spent about 90% of the time in fits of laughter and the rest catching my breath. There’s the young and handsome film star who doesn’t really know how to act apart from doing cool tricks while riding a horse in Westerns; the innocent looking blonde bombshell who is actually a chain smoker and disgracefully pregnant to one of the guys that she’s been going out with; and one of my personal favourites – the secret society of stereotypically Jewish looking communist screenwriters.

The central storyline revolves around the production of the film Hail, Caesar! which tells the story of Jesus from the point of view of a Roman military commander. Of course the studio doesn’t want to ruffle any school of believers with an offensive portrayal of their messiah so they gather together a group of clerics from the Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Protestant and Jewish traditions to consult with. My favourite scene: a hilarious and poignant exchange regarding the essence of Christ, ensues. The way Eddie phrases the issue to his interlocutors is along the lines of whether they think that anything in the script of Hail, Caesar! would strike as offensive to a “reasonable American regardless of faith or creed”. Reason and faith inhabit the opposite ends of a spectrum, which obviously leads to a totally nonsensical argument between the four religious leaders about theological disagreements between each of their respective sects. The Patriarch is merely bothered about the “fakeyness” of an unrelated scene, the Catholic Priest is really, very intense, the Protestant Minister nonspecific and the rabbi clearly sees himself as superior since Judaism obviously departs from the rest of Christianity by insisting that Jesus was just a mortal man.

Here’s a transcript of part of the debate for your entertainment. If you’re bored, try to identify who’s who, and go see the film. It’s extremely funny.

“Young man, you don’t follow for a very simple reason: these men are screwballs. God has children? What, and a dog? A collie maybe? God does not have children. He’s a bachelor. And very angry.”

“He used to be angry!”

What, he got over it?”

“You worship the God of another age!”

“Who has no love!”

“Not true! He likes Jews.”

“God loves everyone!”

“God is love.”

“God is who is.”

Clearly the film is here ridiculing the internal discord of Christianity, and the overall elusiveness of the basis of religious faith. For many, religion answers the big questions of why there is something rather than nothing and what is the purpose of our lives, but from a secular point of view this system is frankly, a big old mess. When there are several different religions in the world divided into several different sects and traditions whose spokesmen all seem to have different interpretations and ideas of what the essence of their god is, not to mention the billions of people who undoubtedly also harbour their own personal interpretations and ideas of these things, any truth claims made on such a premise – or lack thereof really, completely evaporate in the non-believers eyes.

In addition to teasing the concept of organised religion and its feeble and fabricated relevance to truth, the character of Eddie Mannix represents a more personal relationship to religiosity. In the opening scene Eddie is shown at a confessional, which he frequents daily, seeking divine forgiveness for his failure to stop smoking and lying to his wife about it. This sin seems rather benign in comparison with the threats, lies and other questionable methods Eddie has to employ in his job in order to cover up all the trouble that his starlets are constantly running into.
This cognitive dissonance of identifying as a devout Catholic whilst simultaneously making unethical decisions is an integral part of being any sort of a believer today without causing massive havoc. Or how else would a Young Earth Creationist (someone who believes that the Earth is 5000 years old and that Darwinian evolution is nonsense) be a doctor for example? Clearly, in order to pass medical school you must have studied a bunch of science totally inconsistent with your scripture. And this also holds true to any theist who accepts that the Earth is actually 4,5 billion years old and that evolution is a fact. Human mind is so flexible and immense in its capacity that a person can hold contradictory beliefs and be totally fine with it, but I think we have to notice that this is not a logical way of processing information. It isn’t markedly wrong or bad – just illogical. And I’m not condemning or sneering at anyone of any faith as long as they don’t harm others in its name. (Look at me getting all defensive. This blog has approximately four and a half regular readers but I’m still terrified of religious fanatics. There’s one living next door, and half of the city’s Orthodox Jew population just round the corner.)
Moreover, I read the cycle of immorality, shame, confession and retribution that dictates Eddie’s life as a critique of the notion that without religious disposition one cannot be moral. Clearly, practising religion is not the answer to the evils of the world either. Quite the contrary, as it seems that for Eddie, going through the motions required by his faith, justifies committing the same sins again and again. And why would he change his ways if the heavenly Father is going to forgive him all the same?

But honestly, it is entirely possible to watch this movie without getting all worked up about the hypocrisy of organised religion. Don’t be discouraged by my seriousness and pessimism!

“All religion, my friend, is simply evolved out of fraud, fear, greed, imagination and poetry.”
– Edgar Allan Poe